Last week, the Lone Star Rail District board of directors voted overwhelmingly to improve our region’s mobility by endorsing the completion of an environmental impact study already underway for a passenger rail line connecting San Antonio to Georgetown and cities in between.
By taking this affirmative stance, the Rail District retained the possibility for federal capital funding to support the project and demonstrated real mettle in the face of the Union Pacific Railroad’s recent decision to back away from the project. The board recognized that failure to complete the environmental study process would leave the region with no transportation alternative other than a relentless, continuous cycle of adding expensive-to-build new lanes to an increasingly congested and dangerous Interstate 35.
Union Pacific’s withdrawal may not be permanent. The railroad has a history of leaving, then rejoining projects (e.g. the Alameda Corridor, Metrolink in Los Angeles, Tower 55 in Dallas, Denver FastTracks, Chisholm Trail Parkway in Fort Worth) once short-term economic pressures fade. But Union Pacific’s unexpected departure provided Lone Star Rail an opportunity to reassess the project and reaffirm the solidarity of its stakeholders – including the 22 cities, counties, and agencies represented on the Rail District’s board of directors.
Last week’s vote proved the project is wanted. The daily nightmare of I-35 traffic congestion proves that the project is sorely needed. The one dissenter on the Rail District board argued that some other organization, such as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), might be better positioned to manage the project. However, we checked and learned that TxDOT doesn’t want to take over our project. Moreover, an early study undertaken by TxDOT determined that an entity specifically dedicated to passenger rail was required. That finding led the Legislature to authorize the creation of the Rail District in the first place.
We’ve capitalized on that independence. Lone Star Rail engineers have already identified at least five other viable track footprint options versus Union Pacific’s original proposal, including: an alignment adjacent to the railroad’s current freight line; an alignment using portions of the I-35 right-of-way, possibly elevated in sections; a more narrowly focused freight realignment effort skirting the cities, or a mix of all the above. Studying these alternatives was planned as part of the environmental impact study process, but we have advanced that work and are finding good reason for optimism regarding the long-term prospects for the project.
Those long-term prospects make Lone Star more than just a transportation project. Moving thousands of people every day between stations all along the corridor also makes Lone Star Rail one of the most exciting economic development opportunities in the country. Currently, transit agencies in California, Florida, Kansas, Oregon, and Virginia are using value capture strategies to fund transportation assets: stations, rail infrastructure, and equipment. In fact, this was the model used here in Texas more than a century ago by the land-grant railroads.
These new efforts employ public-private partnerships to undertake the regional planning, implementation, integration and development of major transportation improvements. The Rail District has proactively moved to a value-capture model and, several months ago, issued a request for expressions of interest among private sector firms who could accelerate our effort.
Lone Star Rail can deliver a critically needed transportation solution for our region and also spark increased economic vitality around its stations along the entire corridor. We intend to create investment-grade infrastructure, economic development and employment opportunities. The resulting incremental increases in tax base can generate funding to support this new transportation service.
Infrastructure is a primary driver of new investment in homes, businesses and educational facilities. Rather than being a burden on the taxpayer, Lone Star Rail can be a driver of increased investment in our community — stimulating significant new economic opportunities, adding thousands of jobs and robust growth in sales taxes. At the same time, Lone Star Rail provides a way to dramatically improve people’s quality of life, particularly those often victimized by the vagaries of I-35 congestion; a cost in terms of time and money.
Our board’s recent vote showed we are determined to bring all of these benefits to Central Texas. It’s the Texas way to persevere against unforeseen circumstances, and it’s important the public know that its leaders are moving with urgency to provide relief to our overburdened commuters and communities. This is not a time to step back, but to step up – and with your help, we will.
Top image: Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.